Winch maintenance made easy

Tips for the maintenance of sailboat winches are presented. The things needed in doing the task are environment-friendly solvents such as Simple Green, freshwater rinse, clean and lint-free rags, winch grease and light machine oil.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about routine maintenance on your boat? Chances are that “cleaning the winches” doesn’t top the list. As essential as winches are to making your sailing experiences successful, they’re some of the most typically neglected items on the boat. Regular servicing of your winches can dramatically increase their efficiency and minimize failure. While the level of winch maintenance will vary with winch use, most manufacturers suggest that winches be broken down and serviced prior to and once during each sailing season.

What’s Involved?

As routine maintenance, each winch should get a quick flush with a hose after sailing, particularly if you sail on salt water. This washes out salt and light dirt and helps prevent corrosion.

A quick check of a typical two-speed winch should only take about five minutes. Pull off the drum, remove the main bearings, wipe away grease on exposed surfaces, and examine parts for wear and damage (particularly pawls, springs, and gear teeth). If all appear fine, lightly grease and reassemble. If, however, the exposed grease is gummed up, loaded with dirt or sand, or the winch parts are dry, it’s time for a servicing overhaul.

A complete servicing overhaul requires breaking down the winch into its component parts, cleaning the parts with a solvent or degreaser, carefully examining parts for wear and damage, and reassembling after properly lubricating the moving parts. (With practice, a complete overhaul of a primary winch on a 35-foot boat should take about 30 minutes.)

How Do You Do It?

First, if you have them, read the manufacturer’s maintenance instructions. Next, lay out a towel or low-sided cardboard box on which you will place the individual winch parts. Let’s get to it.

You must remove the winch drum. It’s usually secured by a screw located in the handle socket, a threaded ring, or some type of snap ring. Have the necessary tools handy to remove the drum. Be careful to lift the drum up straight and slowly, as the bearings and individual parts may come up with it. Disassemble the winch parts and lay them in the box or on the towel in the order you removed them. This will make the reassembly process much easier. If you need to, make a sketch; this is the time to do it. Take a moment to study how the pawl and springs fit together and how to place the pawls in relation to the gears. If you’re servicing a set of winches, don’t take both apart at once. If you forget how the pieces fit together, you’ll still have a complete model to compare it to.

Now, let’s clean the parts. If the winch-component parts aren’t completely gunked up with grease, wipe them down with a doth and solvent. If they are heavily gunked up, soak the caked parts in solvent. (Don’t soak plastic parts in strong solvents.) When parts are degunked, rinse with freshwater and dry. When all of the components are dean and dry, it’s time to lubricate and reassemble them. Using a winch grease recommended by your manufacturer, lightly coat the bearings and gears, but don’t pack the winch with grease. Remember, don’t grease the pawls and ratchet teeth; these parts should be lubricated with machine oil. Once this is complete, reassemble all the parts in the reverse order of their removal, following the manufacturer’s instructions or your diagram. If the parts don’t slip into place fairly easily, something may be incorrectly placed. Be sure to reattach the stripper arm of a self-tailing winch in the correct position.

Once you’ve completely reassembled the winch, spin the drum and listen. The drum should turn freely and be fairly quiet and smooth. Listen closely for the click of the pawls; they should click solidly, in all the gears. If they do, you have successfully completed your winch-servicing session. You should be set for the season, but if you plan extensive racing or cruising, you may have to schedule more frequent servicing sessions. Don’t ignore those all-important winches; tackle them early and avoid the last-minute worry.

WHAT DO YOU NEED?

  • Manufacturer’s maintenance instructions (if available)
  • Two buckets: one for solvent, one for freshwater rinse
  • Solvent: environmentally friendly solvent like Simple Green are advisable, but solvents like Simple Green are advisable, but solvent such as kerosene or mineral spirits will also work
  • Clean, lint-free rags
  • Winch grease and light machine oil
  • Tools: screwdriver, Allen wrenches, pocketknife
  • Low-sided cardboard box or towel to place parts on during servicing

Advice for a faster bottom finish

Tips for the maintenance of sailboat bottom finishes are presented. Sailboat bottom system come in four kinds. Gel coats are used for dinghies, epoxy for sportboats and small keelboats, ablative or hard antifouling paint are used for cruiser/racers or racing keelboats.

Everyone who hauls their boat for winter storage knows that sooner or later the question of what to do with the bottom will arise. I’ll demystify the various bottom-finish systems by simply stating that a well-prepared bottom will last longer and work better. Now, how much time and money are you willing to spend? You can do the work yourself if you have more time than money, or you can go to a “speed shop” and have a professional team do the dirty work. Either way, the payoff is more speed.

Although boats come in all sizes, the scope of bottom systems is relatively limited. There’s the shiny gelcoat bottom, found on most planing dinghies and some sportboats. Other sportboats and small keelboats are finished in epoxy. Then, for those who keep their boats in the water, there’s ablative or hard antifouling paint.

Anti-fouling paint comes in two types: ablative, which will slough off over the course of the season, and hard, non-ablative. Wet sanding is not recommended for ablative paints because much of the finish is removed during the wet-sanding process, making the surface less effective against growth. Ablative paints, however, usually require less cleaning because the paint sloughs off while the boat is underway, taking the slime and growth with it.

Many racers prefer a hard, non-ablative paint, which can be wet sanded and polished to a shiny finish. An epoxy bottom provides an excellent water barrier and in most systems is recommended underneath the anti-fouling bottom paint.

You can finish the bottom with epoxy alone, but it will not have anti-fouling properties. The advantages, however, are durability and color. An epoxy-coated bottom will last many seasons because it does not wear off, and it comes in white. In addition to aesthetic reasons, white is a good choice because growth is more visible on a white bottom.

Doing It Yourself

If you choose to do the bottom work yourself, you have several choices. The easiest thing is to simply roll or spray another coat of paint over the existing bottom. This works, but is usually not conducive to speed or durability. Power washing, which many yards do routinely upon haul-out, will remove growth and loose paint. If you make the arrangements beforehand, the yard can usually take the extra time needed to remove loose paint with the power wash.

Ideally, however, bottom preparation starts with a bare hull, either gelcoat or coated with an epoxy barrier from the mold. If the bottom of your boat already has paint on it, you’re going to have to remove it. Sanding the existing paint can be difficult, especially if it’s ablative paint that will rapidly clog sandpaper. Chemically stripping the bottom is probably your best bet. This may require several applications of stripper, and will require sanding afterward. Electric or dual-action sanders, with a 5- or 6-inch round pad, work best. Manufacturers typically recommend mechanically scuffing the surface before any bottom application. I recommend 60- to 80-grit sandpaper to achieve a solid bond between the raw bottom and epoxy barrier.

After scuffing the bottom, apply the epoxy barrier to the manufacturer’s specifications. They will specify a mill thickness that generally equates to three to five thickly applied coats. Keep in mind that after sanding you will have fewer coats than when you started, so the rule is to go with more rather than less.

For a final application of anti-fouling bottom paint, sanding the epoxy with 120 grit, followed by 220 grit, is fine. When reapplying an epoxy barrier, sanding the underlying layer with 80 to 100 grit is recommended. The epoxy barrier coat is very hard, and depending on the application process (rolled or sprayed) a coarser grit sandpaper may be required to remove all of the “orange peel” from the epoxy. The serious racer would block or board sand at this point to fair the bottom.

When sanding, one of the tricks of the trade is to wipe blue dye on the bottom before sanding. This makes the high spots and pinholes more visible. Another option is to spray a light coat of spray paint on the surface. (Any residue left after sanding can be wiped off with acetone.) Any holes you find should be filled with epoxy filler, resanded, and primed. High spots should be sanded down. You now have a nice epoxy barrier. It can be sanded smooth as a final finish, or the barrier can serve as a primer for a finish surface of white epoxy or anti-fouling paint.

The best way to apply a finish coat is to spray it. Rolling the bottom paint or epoxy is also fine, but will require more work when wet-sanding. Apply the finish coats to the manufacturer’s specifications; again, three to five coats. After it’s dry, you’ll need to sand again. If the finish was sprayed, start with 320 grit and finish with 400. If rolled, start with 220 and work your way to 400. For a shiny finish, we always wet-sand with a rubber sanding block, using a fore and aft motion, keeping the block parallel to the centerline and waterline.

Bottom Maintenance

Maintaining your bottom from this point will require only routine cleaning, whether bottom paint, epoxy, or gelcoat finish. Keep in mind that if you clean with anything more abrasive than what the bottom has been prepared to, you will negate all of the hard work that has been done. A good wet-sanded finish, whether epoxy or anti-fouling, is usually 400 to 600 grit. Gel-coated surfaces are usually 1,000 to 1,200 grit, so cleaning with anything more than a sponge with dish soap will scratch – I recommend white Scotchbrite pads for in-the-water cleaning. Remember to clean in a fore and aft direction. Wetsanding also will clean well, but each time you wet sand, you remove more paint.

Whatever your choice of bottom treatment, remember that a well-maintained finish will get you there faster.

The right amount of preseason preparation

Tips are given on how sailors can prepare for the coming sailboat racing season. Some of the mistakes that sailors commit at the start of the racing season are due to improper preparation.

Some of the problems we experience at the start of the season stem from the extremes of preparation. There are sailors, like Joe B. Casual, who have done absolutely nothing since they parked the boat last November. They simply launch the boat and head out for the first race, ripe for breakdown, injury, and frustration.

At the other extreme is Peter Prepared, who’s been to every seminar, surfed the web all winter, meticulously prepared his boat, and worked out at the gym. As a coach, I would prefer to work with Peter rather than Joe, but Peter might suffer from having made too many changes, and having expectations that are too high. Both Joe and Peter could alter their preseason preparation to be more effective.

Recipe for the Overprepared

First, consider Peter. He has done a seemingly thorough job of preparation, but he still might get disappointing results at his first test of the season. I can hear him now, “I can’t believe Joe beat me, he’s outta shape, his boat is a wreck, and he doesn’t even have an MRI-enhanced code X hyper-Mylar jib! How can this be?”

Dance with the girl that brung ya. Peter needs to surf his boat, not the web. After a winter of analyzing the latest go-fasts, he may have fallen victim to the hype surrounding new equipment and techniques. It’s important to be current, but the latest fads must be avoided. Instead, Peter should learn how to use standard equipment better than the next guy. Only after a major change in gear, tuning, or technique is widely adopted should Peter join the crowd. And when he does make those changes, he must allow practice time to adjust his boathandling routines.

Analyze to learn, internalize to know. If you gave Peter a written test on the complete works of Stuart Walker, he would get an “A.” But on the water, he can’t recognize the highly fluid situations quick enough to apply the correct answer. Studying tactics is great, but there’s no substitute for time in the boat. Peter needs to get in as many short-course races as possible so he can “internalize” the lessons and respond without thinking. (See “Top 10 Early Season Tactical Errors.”) Winter frostbite racing is ideal for this.

Sail yourself into shape. After an off-season of serious exercise, Peter should be in better shape than Joe. But the fittest person doesn’t always win, whether in sailing or other sports. More commonly, the most highly skilled athlete wins. Fitness is important, but beyond a certain level, there are diminishing returns, and the “principle of specificity” states that only highly specialized conditioning will significantly improve performance. Hiking in a Snipe may not improve your fitness for hiking in a Laser. The training has to be very specific.

Heavy-air sailing in your own boat is the best training, once you’ve reached a certain level of fitness. This is the Catch-22. You have to sail in heavy air to get in shape to sail in heavy air, Skill and conditioning aren’t the same thing, but achieving both is interrelated. Because Peter hasn’t sailed in heavy air for months, he shouldn’t put unrealistic expectations on his heavy-air speed. He’s ready for some heavy-air practice, and by the end of the sailing season he should finally have the speed he deserves.

Recipe for the Underprepared

Joe B. Casual will tell you that he sails for fun, has a real life, and just doesn’t have the time to match Peter’s perfectionism. “And hey,” says Joe, “we beat Peter half the time last year anyway.” But with no preparation for his first regatta, at best Joe is likely to have a mediocre finish. At worst, breakdown or injury could mean no finish at all. While I’m not going to condone Joe’s lack of preparation, there are some last-minute things he could do to improve the situation.

Stretch to avoid injury. Stretching is the single most important preparation you can do. It should be done both before and after sailing. Studies suggest that you shouldn’t stretch cold muscles, so first perform some light calisthenics, then stretch the major muscle groups. If he wants to get in shape quickly, the best single exercise for small-boat sailing is to ride a bike, either stationary or on the road. Joe should try to do this for 30 minutes three times a week.

Relax while commuting. Sailing is a low-intensity sport, so reducing stress and anxiety is important. Now Joe is a casual kind of guy, so maybe he has this all figured out, but it never hurts to practice relaxation skills. While commuting to work, he should focus on isolating and relaxing his muscles, paying particular attention to his facial, neck, shoulder, and buttock muscles. When someone cuts him off in traffic, he can inhale, then exhale and let the road rage go.

Remember: Rust never sleeps. There is no need to stress all winter about your equipment. But Joe should dig out his gear a week before the first regatta and spend a couple of evenings in the garage. Replace the questionable, make a few upgrades, and finish the hit list left over from last summer. This doesn’t have to take long, if he has the right tools and a good space to work.

Plan a weekend without expectations. Dedicate an afternoon to practicing with your crew. Pick two marks and go windward/leeward, round and round. Spend half your time on boathandling and half on boatspeed. Go straight line, all by yourself, and concentrate on steering, sail trim, heel, and feel. Pay attention to the puffs, lulls, waves, and windshifts while you’re grooving along. Go rudderless if possible, or centerline the tiller with bungy, and steer with weight and sail trim.

The next day, arrange a practice session with a few friends in their boats. Do the same simple drills, but in a race-like atmosphere. Chase your buddies around the windward/leeward. Use a rabbit start to line up for speed testing. Finally, and this holds true for both Peter and Joe, pick a relatively minor regatta for the first test of your off-season preparation.

TOP 10 EARLY SEASON TACTICAL ERRORS

  1. Crash and burn while starting at the pin, or barging at the boat
  2. Failure to “cross ’em when you can”
  3. Leebowing when you should’ve ducked
  4. Tacking too close when you should’ve ducked
  5. Tacking short of the layline (see above)
  6. Overstanding the layline
  7. Last boat of a group going high on a reach
  8. Caught up in clumps of boats on the run
  9. Outside at marks
  10. Covering when it’s inappropriate

 

Steer to become a better crew

A female sailor describes the steering lessons she learned while she co-skippered a dinghy during a weekend regatta. She expressed surprise that the experience taught her to be a better crew member.

I’ve been a card-carrying member of the Snipe “crew union” for nine years. I’ve perfected the last-second pole douse and hike hard even when the skipper is sitting in (to adjust something of course). I thought I knew everything about crewing – until I tried my hand at steering.

Competing in the Snipe Women’s Worlds was the ultimate goal. But I also thought that, by picking up the tiller, I’d pick up a few skipper tricks as well – like the elbow jab to keep the crew hiking hard, or the strategic excuse for tacking just as your legs start to burn. To my surprise, it taught me to be a better crew.

The biggest lessons came from a weekend regatta I co-skippered with Andrew Pimental in preparation for the Worlds. Andrew and I have sailed Snipes together for a long time, and I figured sharing the helm with him would let me ease into steering in a familiar setting. But even with the same teammate, the view is very different from the back of the boat.

Lesson No. 1: Little adjustments do pay. The first surprise was how much taking hold of the tiller and mainsheet improved my feel of the boat. That half inch of jib-sheet ease, slight tug on the cunningham, or sliding an inch farther out on the rail dramatically altered the load on the tiller. So maybe all those times I’d been asked for a minuscule adjustment, my skipper really had been able to feel the difference – which meant that what we crews call “skipper over-sensitivity” is not a form of crew harassment.

Lesson No. 2: You can’t make every call from the front of the boat. As my feel increased, Andrew’s decreased. “How ’bout layline?” I asked as we approached the weather mark the first time around. “You call it. I can’t tell from up here,” was his reply. To my surprise, I was able to call the layline right. We had only moved one body width, but our specialties had swapped. So now I can blame what I’d thought was a personal failing (my inability to call laylines) on my position in the boat.

Lesson No. 3: Make yourself small when blocking the skipper’s view. Steering also changed my blind spots. As a crew, sitting up front, you don’t care about seeing directly behind you. But set a body smack dab in your line of sight when looking forward and it sure can be distracting. When it was too light for Andrew to be fully hiked, he sat up straight (just as he would have back aft) to look around. Seeing the waves around him was like playing chicken with a city bus. I vowed to always hunch my head and shoulders when I reclaimed my crewing territory.

Lesson No. 4: Be precise in describing the course. Because I was new to the helm, if I didn’t concentrate on steering, we’d hit waves and stop. I had to rely on Andrew to describe what was happening on the race-course, but any hesitation in his wording (“It almost looks like the pressure might be better on the right”) sent my head swiveling to check. Most of the time I agreed with him, but what was the point in him speaking at all if I had to look?

The same thing applies when calling the breeze downwind. “Here comes a puff” seems pretty specific when you’re facing aft, watching it fill. When you turn off the visual and become the skipper, facing forward (eyeing the waves, mainsail trim and traffic, and only listening with a small part of your brain anyway), “Here comes a puff” is somewhere just short of useless. Estimated time of arrival, relative location and effect on wind direction, even if not perfectly accurate, are a must if this information is going to do anything more than distract the driver. I resolved to work harder on effective communication as a crew.

Lesson No. 5: The stress of steering makes you obsess on silly things. And now for a confession that may force my resignation from the crew union. On a light-air reach, the top third of the Snipe jib (unseen by the crew sitting to leeward) is always undertrimmed, because of the location of the outboard jib leads. I know (as a rational crew) that keeping the bottom two-thirds of the jib working is more important than properly trimming the top third, but I still (as an irrational skipper) became instantly obsessed with the lifting upper yarn. “Trim!” I barked. Andrew just laughed. “See how annoying it is?”

I now understand that this skipper obsession with detail is stress-related, not a symptom of a serious personality disorder. Now that I have experienced the continuous tension in the back of the boat, I will take stress-related comments more positively – and less personally.

Fortunately, Andrew didn’t treat switching off as just a special favor to me. He used the experience to make some rigging changes so the crew’s job would be easier, and he learned quite a few mechanical tricks about the front of the boat that he can pass along to future crews. Most importantly, he will no longer assume his forward teammate has as much feel for the boat as he does, and won’t hesitate to ask for those small changes in weight and trim that make so much difference.

And even if I accept the crew union presidency (my fourth overall at the Women’s Worlds shouldn’t disqualify me), I’ll never forget how a positive response to “Hike harder!” can alter the touch of the tiller. With my new perspective, I can now tell my skipper with confidence, “I never would’ve done that if I’d been steering.”

Sailing’s best kept secret

The 1998 George R. Hinman Trophy saw the participation of 12 sailing teams from the East Coast to Hawaii with such odd names as Molokaian Maniacs and Fat Old Has-Beens. The event has been described as a cross between basketball and roller derby.

Roll tacks in 30 knots of breeze. Traps. Picks. Oops – knockdown! In the land of theme parks, this could be the latest thrill ride. All aboard if you dare. Check out team racing, sailing’s best-kept secret. Some of the hottest dinghy sailors in the country came to Alamitos Bay YC in early December to compete for the 1998 George R. Hinman Trophy that goes to US SAILING’s team racing national champions.

Hinman was a former president of US SAILING when it was called NAYRU and a tough competitor on Long Island Sound in the International One-Design class. But, by George, it’s a good bet he never saw anything like this. When the 12 teams from the East Coast to Hawaii signed in as the Molokaian Maniacs, Erratic Fanatics, Fat Old Has-Beens and other bizarre sobriquets, local old-timers thought it must be a revival of the wild days of Roller Derby – and after they watched for a while, they were convinced.

“It’s a cross between basketball and Roller Derby,” said Chris Ericksen, the principal race officer for the host Alamitos Bay YC. But anyone old enough to remember Roller Derby probably shouldn’t try Team Racing, at least not at the level generated at the Nationals. The winning team was the Boston Cosmos, captain Josh Adams’ bunch of former Tufts University warriors who had already won the ’98 Team Racing Worlds at Miami. Their hot hand is Nick Trot- man, who doubled by winning the 505 Worlds as well.

Team racing is in dinghies for the Nationals, with Vanguard 15s provided by Vanguard Sail- boats. Each team has three boats with crews of two and sails against the other teams in a round-robin series leading to sail-offs among the final four.

Each boat is scored by its finish – 1 through 6, low total team points wins. Here’s the key: a team can clinch a match by finishing first and third – do the arithmetic – leaving its third boat to sacrifice itself by blocking boats from the other team.

That’s where the Roller Derby tactics come in. Those under 40 must understand that their parents revere that sport with a kind of cult nostalgia for mayhem. They followed it in drab converted boxing arenas or on flickering 10-inch black-and-white TVs as teams of skaters, male and female, swirled around banked board tracks. Several skaters, forming a “jam,” held up the other guys so one of their own could lap the field and score points for every opponent he passed.

Add to that such basketball ploys as the “pick” – wiping off a defender on a stationary ally – or laying a “trap” at a mark and riding a foe off into the sunset as your teammates sail by – and you have team racing.

“It’s fun, once you figure it out,” said Brad Dellenbaugh, a U.S. Naval Academy sailing coach and chairman of the ’98 US SAILING Team Race Committee. “You’re part of a team, so you can help out a teammate. Normally, in no other racing would you deliberately slow down and sit on an opponent.”

Team racing isn’t new. It’s big in high school and college sailing on both coasts. The Hinman has been contested since 1981. Members of past winning teams include Terry McLaughlin, Peter Isler, Ed Adams, Dave Ullman, Steve Benjamin, Chris Raab, Kevin Hall, David and Brad Dellenbaugh, John Kolius, and Nick Adamson. The ’98 field included not only Trotman and Josh Adams but two-time winner Zack Leonard.

But the ignorant among us, until exposed to it, tend to dismiss team racing as a contrived this-isn’t-really-sailboat-racing gimmick. Some advice: don’t knock it until you try it – and even world-class dinghy aces who haven’t team-raced should think twice before they do.

“If they tried to do it at this level, they’d have some difficulty,” Brad Dellenbaugh said.

Such is the prestige of the game, which probably should be an Olympic discipline – the skill level is that keen.

Those skills were pushed to the limit over three cold and blustery days on Alamitos Bay. “We thought it would be a great venue,” Dellenbaugh said. Adams said, “We expected light air.”

The bay is a sheltered tidal pond about a half-mile in diameter, surrounded by million-dollar homes and palm trees, which were bent like twigs by a rare northeasterly that often pegged the ABYC anemometer at 40 knots, switched the water into super-wash cycle, and blew the Bay’s 5 mph speed limit to oblivion.

Even Trotman and crew Victoria Wadsworth suffered a dunking – that’s how wild it was. But nobody wanted to quit. Wadsworth said, “I’m fine. The water wasn’t as cold as the air.”

Ericksen’s committee ran 83 races over three days without a hitch, and as the weekend moved along it became clear that the conditions were separating the contenders from the pretenders.

“It was really tricky sailing, puffy and shifty – huge shifts,” Trotman said. “Our biggest strategy was to get out and slow the competition down.”

The Cosmos have been sailing together for several years. They know each other’s moves the way Steve Young and Jerry Rice do. “We pretty much know what we’re gonna do out there,” Trotman said. “We always try to have good starts [so] we can cover all the lanes on the beat. We start in the same positions every time.” That would be Trotman/Wadsworth to weather, Mark Mendelblatt/Suzannah Kerr in the middle and Adams/Brett Davis to leeward. If one or two boats squirt out ahead on the beat, the other one or two take on the opposition. “But we all pretty much go for the one,” Trotman said.

Trotman said team racing is a nice change of pace from fleet racing. “I love them both,” he said, “but fleet racing is a totally different strategy. The 505 races are 2 1/2 hours. These are 15 minutes.”

The Cosmos were back in the pack at 3-2 during the round-robins, trailing the 4-1 Kaiser Sosa team from Bristol, R.I. (Brian Doyle, Zack Leonard, Jon Pinckney, Richard Feeny, Chelsie Wheeler and Katie McDowell).

Then the Cosmos swept their best-of-three quarter- and semifinal matches against the Erratic Fanatics from Stanford and Team NYYC-Con Leche from Ivy League country, and won their last two matches against Cape Cod’s Wishbone, which had eliminated Kaiser Sosa, 3-2.

The victory qualified the Cosmos to represent the U.S. in the 1999 Worlds in Ireland next July.

Taming the floater spinnaker douse

The floater spinnaker douse is a technique used when a helmsperson is unsure on how to navigate in a crowded situation while approaching the leeward mark of a race. The strategy can be done if there is complete cooperation between the helmsperson and the trimmers.

Approaching the leeward mark in a crowd of boats can be a stressful experience … boats threatening a last-second inside overlap … boats threatening to force you onto the other jibe … your foredeck crew screaming to know on which side to set up the jib. What if you can’t make the call because you’re ensure how to navigate the traffic?

When this happens, your call should be “Floater!” This is the special type of spinnaker douse in which the pole is tripped away, dropped, and stored several boatlengths outside the mark. The spinnaker stays up until the last second, flying without the pole, often pulling you clear ahead of the traffic. But if need be, you can still pull off a last-minute jibe to avoid that traffic or play a late windshift.

Better yet, the floater allows you to take the sail down on either side of the boat without fear of getting the pole and jib sheets entangled. It also allows the spinnaker to be stored on the correct side of the boat for the next set, saving a lot of crew movement and cleanup time. And you can tack immediately after rounding the mark if you need to clear your air. In short, the floater takedown provides a faster rounding and more tactical options. The maneuver does, however, require good driving and crew coordinator to be successful.

Approaching the Mark

The helmsperson must approach the mark at the correct wind angle if the spinnaker is to fly easily without the pole. This is not necessarily the best polar angle for the windspeed. Instead, the angle is often deeper. If you are sailing at too high an angle when the pole is tripped away, the spinnaker will rotate to leeward and collapse in the lee of the main.

The timing of the trip call is also critical. It must be done far enough from the mark to give the crew plenty of time to get the pole down and stored before the douse call is made. The trip must also be made when the boat is at the correct angle to the wind. When the pole is tripped away, the sail should remain flying in the same position, not roll to leeward. You can usually sense if the sail will stay there or not. It helps to make the trip call when the boat is on a wave, as the loads are less. It’s also best to time it on a roll to weather, as the momentum of the roll will help hold the spinnaker out, away from the mainsail. The helmsperson can create this roll by a slight turn to leeward at the time of the trip call. Positioning a crewmember at the shroud to hold the guy out and act as a human pole is another way of keeping the sail out and flying. This becomes less and less effective, however, as the boat and sail get bigger.

Floater Jibes

It’s always best to plan your final approach so you don’t have to do a late jibe. Assuming that you don’t have to jibe, hoist the jib before you trip away the pole. But if it looks like you might be forced into a late jibe, then trip the pole before the jib hoist because it’s much easier to keep the spinnaker full through a jibe with the jib down. This is particularly important in light wind.

Sometimes there just isn’t enough time to delay the jib hoist until after the jibe. If you have to jibe with the both the spinnaker and headsail up, the bowperson should gather the leech of the jib and hold it forward. This allows more wind to get through to fill the spinnaker.

Making a slow turn as you jibe is one of the keys to keeping the spinnaker flying. If the turn is too fast, centrifugal force will overrotate the spinnaker, and it will collapse behind the mainsail. A slow turn allows the trimmers to float the sail well away from the boat and to match their trim to the turn of the boat.

Floater Takedowns

Cooperation between the trimmers and helmsperson is essential. During the douse, the wind angle steered and the timing of the sheet release will either make the foredeck’s job easy or impossible. If you’re doing a weather takedown, the helmsperson must sail deep until the foredeck crew has control of the sail. The first move after the douse call is to release the sheet, not the halyard. The foredeck must be in position and pulling when the sheet is released. Once the sail has flagged out in front of the boat and is no longer full, the halyard should be eased as fast as the foredeck crew can keep up with it (keep one wrap on the winch). If the halyard is eased too early, you risk running over the sail (otherwise known as “shrimping”). The entire sail needs to be to weather of the forestay before you turn up to round the mark.

If you’re doing a leeward douse, first ease the guy forward until the clew is at the headstay, then hold it there. The foredeck crew should be ready to pull the sheet side in. The helmsperson must head up enough so the sail rotates behind the jib. The sheet trimmer then releases the sheet as the crew begins to gather the sail. Finally, the halyard is eased, but only after the sail is safely in the lee of the jib.

If you have to jibe as part of the mark rounding, it’s very effective to douse the spinnaker on the inside of the jib immediately after the jibe. This allows you to delay the douse until the last second, lessening the risk of the sail blowing away and getting out of control. As you begin to turn into the jibe, overtrim the old sheet to rotate the spinnaker to the old leeward side behind the jib. Then, as you jibe, hold that sheet tight and release the guy. After the jib flops across, release the halyard quickly and the chute will fall down the inside of the jib right onto the foredeck. (Don’t release the halyard until the spinnaker has blown across the boat and against the new weather side of the jib.)

So if you’re looking for a way to open your tactical options and save time at the leeward mark, schedule a crew practice on floater takedowns. First learn how to fly the spinnaker without the pole; then perfect the poleless jibe. The leeward takedown is next and the easiest to learn, followed by the weather takedown. When you’ve mastered all these, try the jibe takedown. Then you’ll have some serious weapons in your bag of tricks.

To win an Olympic gold medal

Don McNamara’s loss to Australian Bill Northam in the 5.5 meter class at the 1964 Olympics was analyzed so that similar mistakes might be avoided by other sailors. The loss of the heavily-favored American was attributed to magical thinking that can either produce timidity or excessive daring.

At the 1964 Olympics, the gold medal in the 5.5 Meter class was won and lost in the final yards of the final race. Had American Don McNamara in Bingo maintained his lead as he approached the finish line, he would have won the gold medal. But, after daring a too-close port crossing of the Swede, Lars Thorn, he was forced to retire. As a consequence, Australian Bill Northam, who at the leeward mark had been second to Thorn (but on the final beat dropped to fifth) took the gold. Thorn won the silver, and McNamara settled for the bronze.

In his fascinating and beautifully written book, White Sails, Black Clouds, McNamara writes: “Years have passed since that seventh and final race, but I still wake up at night in a cold sweat, reliving my decisions of that day.”

Because similar, inappropriate decisions are made every day on every racecourse in the world, McNamara’s incident warrants a careful analysis. What compels an experienced helmsperson to make a decision that is so clearly wrong?

Everyone expected McNamara – the renowned American with the fastest boat and 50 bags of sails – to win the gold medal. No one expected the Aussie representative to win anything. McNamara, the young hotshot, was the privileged East Coast yachtsman; Northam, the old-timer, was the rough-and-ready sailor. McNamara, at 32, had been at the top of the 5.5 Meter class for the past nine years. Northam, 65, a golfer, race-car driver, and occasional big-boat sailor, had never been in an around-the-buoys race prior to the ’64 Australian 5.5 Championship! He said that he had learned to sail a 5.5 in that regatta and in the Olympic trials. “He was so offhand ashore, so full of clowning and jokes – he seemed to know so little about the technical details of sailing that you wondered what was going to happen next,” said Dick Sargent, his crew. But he got the ultimate out of the boat; his concentration was so complete that he seemed oblivious to everything else.

Northam was a realist. He was focused on speed. He delegated the responsibility for such esoteric matters as strategy and tactics to his (very experienced) crew. Driving a race car had taught him to make accurate assessments of the possible and the impossible. He learned that there were times to attack and times to wait for the opponent to make a mistake.

McNamara was a romantic. His book demonstrates that he was driven to win by a crusader’s fervor; for him nothing was impossible, no victory unattainable. He was amazed when a competitor snatched away a triumph that was intended for him. He attributed his failures to “black clouds” – external forces that opened main-halyard shackles when an event was on the line – and his successes to fortuitous integration of the wind with his boat and crew.

After five races of the Olympic regatta, McNamara was leading Northam by a few points, and the stage was set for a showdown in the final. Although McNamara had to beat Northam and, if he was first, put one boat between them (and if second, two), he must have been confident that the gold would be his. He was the famous American with the fastest boat and the best sails. He had won two of the previous races by huge margins. He deserved to win.

In the seventh race, McNamara had an excellent start and Northam a poor one. But toward the end of the first beat, McNamara revealed the first evidence of impaired judgment. Instead of covering the second and third boats to the layline, he tacked away from what proved to be a zone of stronger air and lost both boats at the mark. He was now third, and Northam was seventh. At the leeward mark, McNamara was second to the Australian’s fifth. On the second beat, Northam tacked to starboard, and McNamara, apparently convinced that his performance would not determine the outcome, let him go. In the left corner Northam found a big back and at the second weather mark was second behind the Swede, Lars Thorn, and ahead of McNamara! The three began the final beat within two boatlengths of each other. McNamara tacked to starboard immediately, and Northam tacked to cover.

McNamara must have been shocked to be overtaken but seems to have remained convinced that he could work through Northam. After a series of tacks and beneficial shifts, he emerged on Northam’s leebow and came back to the rhumb line with the Aussie slightly to windward and dropping astern. Thorn, on starboard, crossed close ahead and tacked to port on Northam’s wind. McNamara pulled ahead on Thorn’s leebow and, approximately 500 yards from the finish line, when he reached a line of stronger, veered air, tacked to cross close astern of Thorn. He broke into clear air as Thorn tacked to cover and was amazed to find that he was laying the pin. All he had to do was hold his position and let them lead him home.

But somehow Thorn was holding position on his weather quarter. McNamara, writing two years later, indicates no concern that the wind would back, no awareness that he need to work up under Thorn to ensure that he finished ahead. He presumably felt that superior speed and ultimately backwinding were all that he would need to finish ahead or, if necessary to tack and cross Thorn. He seemed unconcerned that before they reached the port layline an attempt to tack and cross could be blocked by a Thorn luff, or that if the stalemate continued until they were beyond the port layline, Thorn could tack with him, ahead and to leeward, and finish ahead.

After sailing approximately 200 yards, McNamara recognized that the wind was backing: “The yellow mark gradually emerged from under the jib.” This matter-of-fact observation was apparently not recognized as a demand for action. Knowing that he could no longer fetch, knowing that he could only reach the finish by tacking, oblivious to his untenable position, he sailed blithely on. He seems to have surrendered, fully prepared to accept whatever the gods might ordain.

Seventy-five yards from the layline, McNamara asked, “Could we clear Sweden?” “I don’t think so; look for yourself,” the crew replied. McNamara describes the dosing moments: “The last 50 yards flew by. As we came on to the layline, the buoy was 15 yards abeam to weather. I glanced over my shoulder at Sweden’s bow and made the judgment of an instant.” Knowing that he could not cross Thorn, he tacked.

Tony Manford, the Australian manager, who watched from a boat at the finish line, thinks McNamara panicked. Even McNamara’s book indicates that he had already made up his mind 500 yards from the line, and he describes the action as if he were observing it from without – as if someone else were steering Bingo along a predetermined course. He was fetching the yellow buoy. There was no reason to alter the predetermined course. Nothing could prevent his victory.

That he did not employ a tactical solution as he approached the finish line is an indication of McNamara’s intention to withdraw himself from the conflict and to rely upon a magical solution. His only realistic hope of finishing ahead of Thorn was to luff. He could have luffed gradually, intermittently, until he forced him to tack. But during the last 500 yards, McNamara made no attempt to exchange the forward distance that he had gained for a move to weather.

An earlier incident of my own showed me that it’s possible for a leeward boat to escape from this predicament. I approached the finish line in the final race on starboard, needing to beat Sam Merrick, who was pinned on my leebow. Neither of us was laying the port end of the line. I only had to hold my position until we reached the layline, where I could tack to finish ahead. But he luffed – again and again – and came closer and closer. Finally, in response to his luff, my luff brought me to a complete standstill. He kept right on turning into a full tack and slipped across my bow.

The magical thinking that McNamara appears to have applied to his Olympic effort is evident almost daily. Most people use it only in extreme anxiety-provoking situations, but many use it whenever they’re under stress. Its purpose, often achieved, is to relieve anxiety by providing an escape from responsibility. It produces a state of narrowed and diminished awareness, impairs judgment, and opens the psychic door to irrational behavior. The outcomes of one’s actions are no longer attributable to one’s own decisions; victory or defeat is magically preordained.

Magical thinking may be associated with either excessive daring or timidity. Witness McNamara’s tacking away from head-to-head battles on the first and second beats and finally, when it was too late, his dramatic suicidal attack. There is a difference between the daring that is based upon rational expectations and that which is based upon irrational expectations. The magical thinker is unable to distinguish the possible from the impossible and, when considering the faintly possible, to compare the effects of an unlikely success with a likely failure.

Northam, perceiving the real world as it was, must have been distressed to see McNamara move through him into second and potentially into first, but he made no rash move that would jeopardize his standing. He recognized that sometimes the opponent has the upper hand and that such times call for passive sailing, a willingness to await the opponent’s mistake. McNamara, his judgment clouded by the self-protective perception that the result was out of his hands, was unable to distinguish the possible from the impossible – and attempted the impossible.

Magical thinking mesmerizes; the psyche becomes preoccupied with its own behavior. One of the most adverse effects is the loss of awareness of one’s opponents and their intentions, probable actions, and potential for mistakes. McNamara’s final-leg disasters – attributed by him to “black clouds” – demonstrate the frequency with which winners are determined by competitor’s mistakes rather than by one’s own performance.

Flexible flyers

Iceboats and scows can move faster because they have flexible mast, sail, hull, and runner plank that produce apparent wind while working in unison. Working here means bending and stretching that can push the boats to move in excess of 80 miles per hour.

Have you ever raced across a frozen lake, inches above hard black ice, at speeds in excess of 80 mph? What is it that makes an iceboat so fast? Part of it is the iceboat’s ability to generate apparent wind, but just as important is the interaction of the mast, sail, hull, and runner plank, which must work in unison for maximum speed and control. And by “work” I mean to bend and stretch, for on the world’s fastest sailboats, stiff is slow.

For years, soft-water sailors have been striving for the stiffest hulls and masts. But hard-water sailors know that you can make an iceboat too stiff. In the fastest soft-water boats – the A and E scows – we’ve implemented our iceboat philosophy and designed hulls and masts that have some flexibility. These scows have proven to be faster for the same reasons that flexibility is fast in iceboats.

Why Bend is Fast

It’s a common misconception that energy is lost when a boat bends. In fact, bend in an iceboat captures energy and enables the boat to accelerate out of a puff in a controlled manner. As a puff hits, the tendency for a stiff hull, mast, and runner plank is to cause an iceboat to “pop up in a hike,” or heel over quickly. Control is compromised, and you often have to spill power by easing the sail. But if the hull, mast, and runner plank all bend in unison, and in the right increments, the iceboat absorbs the sudden puff and quickly turns it into speed. Control is maintained and the boat remains on track.

Flexibility itself is not enough. These major components also need good “memory.” They must bend quickly as the puff hits and then recover to a normal position just as quickly. If the mast and runner plank don’t have good memory, they bend out to a maximum position and stay there after the initial shock of the wind gust hits. As a result, the boat takes longer to accelerate, will not accelerate to as high a speed, and will not point as high. Memory gives the iceboat “life.” When the mast and plank recover quickly from the initial shock of the puff, the acceleration is immediate and controlled.

Anatomy of an Iceboat

Depending on the iceboat class, the hull can be made of wood, fiberglass, or carbon fiber. Weight isn’t important, except in conditions when the ice is rough. Flexibility in the hull is important, especially as the wind increases. The hull must bend if the boat is to be forgiving and easy to sail.

The runner plank (which spans the two outboard runner blades) must also bend, but the range of flexibility needs to be larger. Runner planks are typically made of wood with multiple laminations and are customized to bend to a specific sailor’s weight. A typical plank is laminated with several inches of “crown,” or camber, and will deflect 6 to 10 inches when sailing. Heavier sailors use stiffer planks with more crown.

Iceboats have rotating wing masts. In the smaller iceboats, such as the DN, the masts are extremely “whippy.” As an iceboat accelerates, the apparent windspeed builds, the sail is trimmed harder, and the mast bends. This flattens the sail, which allows more boatspeed, which means more sheet trim, and so on. This trim cycle is repeated until the layman would swear the mast was about to snap. Much of that mast bend is sideways, but because the wing is rotated into the wind, side bend is a very effective way to flatten the sail.

As the boat accelerates, the apparent-wind angle also moves forward. If the sail didn’t get flatter, you wouldn’t be able to point. To give you an idea of the speed and apparent-wind angles that are generated, an iceboat runs downwind with the sail trimmed in tight in most conditions.

The mast must also react like the hull and runner plank, absorbing the puffs as they hit and turning them into speed. The fastest masts are those that can quickly bend an extreme amount and then recover immediately as the puff subsides. The bow and arrow is a good analogy. The memory of the bow is what gives the arrow its speed and acceleration. An iceboat mast is typically made of wood, fiberglass, or carbon fiber of multiple laminations, and must have the same memory.

The sail is the final piece of the puzzle. A fast sail should be draft forward and straight-leeched. It must be matched perfectly to the mast so that the sail completely flattens out when the mast bends. Full-length battens are used, and there are several sets (of varying stiffness) used in different wind conditions. While the rest of the sailing world moves to stiffer and less stretchy fibers in sailcloth, iceboaters have found good old Dacron is still the fastest. A Dacron sail is stretchy enough to allow the sail to twist open automatically as a puffs hit. This “flexibility” is yet another aid in the acceleration package.

By now, you should be dying for an iceboat ride. Here’s a taste of what it’s like to round the weather mark in a Skeeter: You’re on the layline approaching the mark in 20 knots of wind, doing about 70 mph, and starting to feel the apprehension. As your leeward runner reaches the mark, you push as hard as you can on the starboard foot-steering pedal. The windward runner lifts off the ice, slowly at first, increasing rapidly as you whip the boat onto the run, never easing the mainsail. Your body is forced into the back of the seat as the boat accelerates to 140 mph, creating G forces that no other sailing vessel could match. The adrenaline rush is unbelievable. You’ve just pulled off the most dangerous iceboat maneuver and are now speeding downwind within feet of several other iceboats, if not overlapped. Remember, this is a race, and you are only in control of your craft by the grace of all those magically flexible elements.

How to find a PHRF racer with a “cupcake” rating

A “cupcake” boat is described as a second- or third-hand boat that has a favorable PHRF handicap even if it has been restored to its first-generation capability. Several good examples of this kind of boat are the Olson-30, Pearson 10M, O’Day 30 and Ranger 30.

Every year, a number of new designs join the PHRF racing scene. They tend to be “high visibility” and attract talented sailors – the type who invests the time and money needed to extract the full potential of their machines. After a few years the luster usually wears off, and the hotshot sailors sell their boats and move on to the latest hot designs.

The next owners typically have a racing program of lesser intensity than the original owners. The sails have aged and are not replaced as often as they should be. The boat is gradually laden with extra “stuff” – you’d be amazed at the “stuff” that a boat can accumulate. The new owner’s crew often isn’t as sharp as the first-year crew. The result is that the boat can no longer win. Could the PHRF handicap be wrong?

By the time the boat has a third owner, an appeal is often made to the local PHRF committee for relief from what now appears to be an onerous handicap. The PHRF Committee, being nice guys, will usually decide to help out. A six second per mile adjustment is common under these circumstances.

With the extra six seconds per mile, the third owner is now happy. He or she has been the beneficiary of what I call the “nice guy syndrome.” In the end, however, that time credit will not make any difference. The typical “third owner” has a racing program so flawed that much more than this is needed to make the boat a winner.

However, the nice guy phenomenon creates wonderful opportunities for the knowledgeable sailor to pick up a boat with a favorable handicap. If you take that third generation boat and restore it to its first generation splendor, you have a winner – in other words, a “cupcake.”

In your search for such a cupcake, don’t be greedy. You don’t want an old boat with too favorable a handicap. After your restoration, if the improved performance is too obvious, corrective action will be taken by your local handicappers. So how do you find the right cupcake?

If the boat is built locally, it’s likely that a number of them are being raced in your PHRF region. Odds are that at least one of these boats will be raced well, so the handicap for that design will be “fair,” not “favorable.” You won’t find a cupcake here; avoid locally built boats.

Instead, what you want is a boat that has few sisterships racing in your area but many racing in another area. Check the US SAILING PHRF Handicaps Book and look for boats that have low handicaps in regions where a significant number are raced. Then see if the boat is scarce in your region. Finally, compare handicaps. If the boat is scarce locally, it should have a higher rating – the nice guy syndrome. You may have found a cupcake, frosted and ready to eat.

The Olson 30 is a good example. It’s a boat on which I have raced in my home waters of New England. While the previous owner of the Olson was a back-of-the-fleet sailor, we were able to sail this boat well enough that we were rounding the windward mark in the middle of the fleet that started in front of us. Unfortunately, the owner sold the boat before we could race it in an important regatta.

The California-built Olson 30 has a 96 handicap (outboard version) in the local fleets where it is popular. The Olson 30 is also raced as a one-design in California, which tends to bring out the best in the boat. In other regions of the country, the Olson 30 is less common, and so some PHRF fleets have significantly higher handicaps. For example, our handicap in New England was 108. If you’re in one of these nice guy areas, put the Olson 30 on your cupcake list.

Another favorite of mine is the Pearson 10M. This is by no means a racing machine. Rather, it is a solid boat with a rig that is indestructible. But, with preparation, it can be made to go. Note that the New England handicap, where the boat was built, is 141 and that the handicap is higher everywhere else. In my area it has been shown that the boat can win at 141 if properly prepared. Any higher handicap is a gift to you. Look for the tall rig version, as it’s better in light air.

The O’Day 30 and Ranger 30 are also on my cupcake list. (The Ranger 30 is really a tall-rigged O’Day 30.) The fleets that have well-sailed boats use ratings of about 174 for the O’Day 30 and 168 for the Ranger 30. There are fleets that have these boats up to 12 seconds per mile higher than these handicaps. These are good boats for the person looking for an econo-racer. A good keel fairing job is essential as the factory keel was a bit uneven.

Another boat to consider is the S2 9.1. Well-built and a good all-around performer, the handicap for an S2 9.1 can be as low as 123. Many of the other fleets have this boat at 132 and several are at 135. Any handicap above 131 makes the boat a cupcake.

A classic cupcake is the Cal 40. Where hotly raced, they often have a handicap of 114. However, other areas have handicaps up to 126. While this boat can be a little sticky in light air, a properly prepared Cal 40 can be a real winner in a breeze.

I have just touched on my favorite cupcakes. There are many others, of course. Just study the US SAILING PHRF Handicaps Book and you might find the perfect boat for you. A word of caution when comparing handicaps in the US SAILING Book. The handicaps for the Northwest and BC Sailing should be multiplied by 0.9 to bring their handicap scales in line with the other fleets. Also note that all the YRA of Long Island Sound handicaps tend to be slightly higher than the national average. Once you understand these variations, you can make better comparisons.

Also, keep in mind that a cupcake handicap doesn’t make a boat an automatic winner. It took years of neglect to get that rating. You’ll have to restore it to top condition if you want to win. This means getting new rags, fairing the bottom and the appendages, and getting the junk out of the boat. Once you have done this, you are ready to put a good crew aboard and go after the trophies.

When racing in the storm

The 1998 Sydney-Hobart race tragedy that killed six sailors has sadly opened up questions regarding the safety of offshore racing. New safety measures are being proposed to prevent future disasters. One such measure is the possibility of postponing the start of a race if foul weather is forecasted.

The recent Sydney-Hobart race calamity was a grim reminder of the perils of racing offshore. The shocking reports from Australia brought back frightening memories for me of the 1979 Fastnet Race. Again, in 1998, as the storm unexpectedly built to near-hurricane strength, the priority shifted from racing to survival. For the unprepared or inexperienced, this is never an easy transition. Aboard Ted Turner’s Tenacious in 1979, I vividly remember the power of that storm. While at the helm, the roar of a giant cresting wave was deafening. As the wave broke over the cockpit, it felt like being at the bottom of a goal-line pileup. Even with two safety harnesses attached to the boat I could not tell if I was still on board. Adding to the long night of terror were continuous Mayday calls crackling over the VHF radio and occasional flares looming and then disappearing over the horizon. based on this experience, I can understand what it was like for the Sydney-Hobart fleet.

Sadly, six sailors perished. There is good reason to ask if the race organizer, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, or the sailors themselves could have done anything to prevent this catastrophe.

The lessons from the ’79 Fastnet inspired regulations that made offshore racing safer. The current Sydney-Hobart inquiry will likely be another harbinger. For now, there are many questions.

Should races be postponed? Can weather forecasts be more accurate? Should (and can) race committees communicate special announcements during a race? What can sailors do to prevent breakdowns, injuries, or worse, loss of life?

Sailing is impossible when the wind is over 60 knots and breaking seas crest over 30 feet. No boat can race, and few can make headway. Imagine the terror of being on a boat as it is rolled 360 degrees. The rig is broken and half in the water. Your boat lacks maneuverability. Suddenly, a crew is washed overboard. How would you respond? Considerable knowledge will be gained on how to handle a case like this through the experiences of the Sydney-Hobart competitors. We should listen carefully. The next disaster could be on any of our boats.

Even without a storm, falling overboard is the most common reason for offshore deaths. The list of sailors who have been lost is long: Nigel Burgess, Mike Plant, Makoto Namba, Rob James, Larry Klein, Andrea Romanelli, Tom Curtis, and Tom Curnow.

According to press reports, the CYCA race committee expected a fresh gale, but still sent the fleet to sea. Apparently they are comfortable with big storms since the Sydney-Hobart race has a long history of “southerly busters.” Unfortunately, the wind built to near-hurricane strength on parts of the racecourse. That’s when the problems began.

The pressure to start the race was strong. On December 26, 1998, the weather was perfect. A huge, festive crowd lined the harbor anticipating the annual spectacle. They were rewarded with a classic spinnaker start in a fresh northeasterly.

There is considerable precedent, however, for postponing the start of long-distance races. In 1982 the Cruising Club of America held back the Newport-Bermuda fleet one day because of rough weather in the Gulf Stream. The Storm Trysail Club has, ironically, also cancelled its t:t. Lauderdale-Key West race because of heavy conditions. Even the Whitbread Round the World Race postponed a leg start from Uruguay in 1993.

Interestingly, another race scheduled to start from Melbourne for Hobart on the same day was postponed.

Luckily for the stricken crews, the Sydney-Hobart race runs along the Australian coast, making helicopter rescue possible. The Australian Navy dispatched a fleet of 27 vessels and several aircraft to search a 4,000-square-mile area. In all, 55 sailors were lifted from life rafts and damaged yachts. Of the six fatalities, Bruce Guy, the owner of Business Post Naiad, had a heart attack. The other five drowned.

There were suggestions in 1979, and now again twenty years later, that the race should have been cancelled. But running for cover is not easy. And how does the race committee communicate with the fleet? Once started, it’s up to the skipper to decide when to stop racing.

Modern ocean race boats are much lighter than 20 years ago. The ride on board can be rough. But the fact is that most boats made it back safely despite broken masts, injuries, and major breakage. This is a credit to ocean-race regulations, strong equipment, and skilled sailors.

The worst case was a 55-year-old wooden boat, Winston Churchill, that sank and lost three crewmembers. Should a classic boat like this one be allowed to compete?

Strict entry requirements for long-distance races are mandatory. The Whitbread race required syndicates to complete a designated long-distance passage before being accepted for entry. The CCA has rejected boats with a history of broken masts or other chronic problems.

The 1998 Sydney-Hobart race now goes in the record books as one of the two toughest offshore races on record. It was sad to learn of the deaths of six sailors. They will be missed, but the lessons learned from the 1998 Sydney-Hobart race will provide benefits to future ocean racers.

SUGGESTED SAFETY PROCEDURES

Race Organizers

  • Conduct rigorous safety inspections and hold procedural reviews with all participants.
  • Require that all crew attend safety-at-sea seminars within two years of race.
  • Track pre-start weather systems from two sources.
  • Distribute air-sea rescue procedures with sailing instructions.
  • Require life jackets, foul-weather gear, and life rafts in bright colors.

Sailors

  • Recruit a minimum number of veteran ocean racers.
  • Post “all-hands” billet and list command structure and a safety equipment storage plan.
  • Hold a safety drill, and review procedures for storm, breakdown, or man overboard, making specific crew assignments.
  • Equip foul-weather gear with floatable flashlight and whistle.
  • Inspect and set storm sails before the race.

In a Storm

  • Rotate crew regularly to avoid fatigue and the resulting bad decisions.
  • No yelling. Clear commands instill confidence.
  • Keep the boat on a comfortable, safe course. Forget about racing.
  • Be organized down below. Make every action purposeful.